Ashland, Oregon, is well known for its vibrant arts scene, anchored by one of the country’s most celebrated theatre companies: the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF). The theatre recently celebrated a 2014 Tony Award for Best Play for All the Way, a play they commissioned starring Bryan Cranston as LBJ, helmed by Artistic Director Bill Rauch.
Ashland has a population of about 20,000 people, but tens of thousands more visit each year, and all of those eager theatre-goers of course need places to drink coffee. We have traveled to many a small town where the specialty coffee offerings were scarce or nonexistent, but that is certainly not the case with Ashland. Mix Sweet Shop serves Stumptown, Case Coffee Roasters has a new café space, and the first roaster in Ashland, Noble Coffee Coffeehouse and Roastery continues to thrive thanks to a dedicated fanbase of actors, locals, and visitors.
I visited Noble Coffee to chat with owners Jared and Carolyn Rennie, and the morning that I walked in, Jennie Greenberry, currently playing Cinderella in Into the Woods and Polly in the Marx Brothers romp The Cocoanuts, was having coffee with friends. Bill Rauch drinks coffee there, along with several OSF artists who are regulars at Noble. The husband and wife team of Jared and Carolyn make Noble the epitome of a mom-and-pop shop–that is, if your mom and pop speak fluent Spanish, travel to origin countries for green coffee, and win Good Food Awards. Jared Rennie also serves as a Cup of Excellence judge and trained other notable roasters, including Samuel Sabori of Intelligentsia.
Noble is named for Jared Rennie’s grandfather, Noble Dukes, and has became a thriving business and community gathering space. Before embarking on a career teaching Spanish, Jared Rennie worked in cafes. “I missed serving people,” he told me. “The hubbub, taking care of people, saying hi, wiping tables, and pouring latte art.”
In 2007, no one was roasting coffee in Ashland. The Rennies started out roasting on a Probat roaster in their garage. “From the beginning we wanted to do the best coffee that is out there, creating a portfolio only buying 90-point and above coffees from the beginning. Everything we have purchased is certified organic.” They eventually found their current 4th Street location, which they initially feared was far bigger than they were looking for, but has since been filled with life and character.
Jared and Carolyn Rennie spend each day juggling work and raising their two sons. They take a hands-on approach to everything they do: when they were recently able to secure the adjacent space for their warehouse and training, they knocked through the wall themselves with a sledgehammer. Now they have more room for the training sessions for each employee, and also have space to train wholesale customers. “We have plans to take great care of southern Oregon,” Mr. Rennie says. “Wholesale is a big part of what we do. That’s why we have invested in this space.”
As for a town filled with theatre artists, theatre-goers and locals, a popular coffee bar like Noble almost can’t help but become part of the theater scene, and the Rennies are happy with the part fate has assigned. Quoth Mr. Rennie, “The actors and all of the people who work at OSF are our community. We all intermingle. We donate to Daedalus. We are part of Shakespeare because Shakespeare is part of our community.”
Noble isn’t just a fuel source for the artistic community–they’re also staffing direct participants in Ashland’s thriving theater scene. Reed Bentley, Noble’s roaster, roasts coffee by day and plays music at night, including a recent gig as a percussionist on the Allen Elizabethan Theatre stage at OSF in their rollicking production of Into the Woods. “I feel like I have two backstage experiences,” Bentley said during a roasting intermission. “What I really enjoy about roasting coffee with Noble and performing with OSF is getting to see the actors and other company members in our coffee house during the day studying their lines or meeting with fellow thespians, and then a complete transformation at night.”
Sitting down with my family for espresso drinks, a cup of Noble’s Ethiopian Suke Quto, and blackberry scones made with fruit from Sunset Valley Organics in Corvallis, it’s clear that the Rennies are accomplishing their goal of roasting and serving coffee with care. But it’s the people watching, the “didn’t I see her on stage last night?” moments at Noble that make this place something special.
Ashland is a very particular, unique sort of American place, a theater enclave with an international reputation that stretches to the very top of the theater world. This is a small-town community that understands quality, hard work, and creativity; Noble Coffee is right at home.
Original photography by Sofia Wolfson for Sprudge.com.